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Practices to Support Spiritual Growth

June 3, 2018

Practices to Support Spiritual Growth--June 3, 2018

I’m so glad you’re all here.  Thank you for asking me to speak.  I pray that something I say will be useful to you.

On the community survey and at our community process a few people commented they were interested in spiritual growth.  That got me thinking about spiritual growth.  Take a moment to reflect like I did on a time when you had heightened spiritual growth.  Do you remember a time of spiritual growth, when.  Where.  For me it did involve attending a church and taking classes, reading books and participating in small discussion groups, all of which we offer here at Koinonia.  Aren’t you proud of that word Koinonia that won the spelling bee!  But spiritual growth doesn’t just happen.  It takes discipline and effort and practice.

First let’s clarify spirituality and religion.  Do you think religion and spirituality are different?  Yes, they are different.  They are two separate and distinct things.  Spirituality is about what it is that defines or explains our lives.  It is what brings us meaning and purpose.  It is a sense of belonging—of connection.  Sometimes it is in the chaos of life that our spirituality comes to the surface.  It is in these dark nights of the soul when we find our true strength and what it is we truly believe.  On the other hand, religion is about what it is that defines or puts form to our spirituality.  It is a framework for our beliefs. Sometimes it is a lot of doctrines and dogmas.  It is rituals and symbols and traditions which brings us in touch with what we believe about life—who we are and why we’re here.

Some of us are not religious but all of us have spirituality.  In public we can leave our religion behind, but we always take our spirituality with us, wherever we go.

Some of you are probably familiar with James Fowler’s classic Stages of Faith. Published in 1981, much like Maslow and Erickson work regarding aspects of human and psychological development, Fowler categorizes spiritual development in stages.  Briefly the stages of faith are:  Primal from birth to 2 years old is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment.  If consistent nurturance is experienced, a child develops a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine.  Conversely, negative experiences will cause a child to develop distrust instead.  Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and languages which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.  Stage 1 is ages 3 to 7 and is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the unconscious. Doesn’t that feel vulnerable.  Intuitive images of good and evil.  Fantasy and reality are the same. I shutter to think of all those archetypal images my daughter saw at that age in all the Disney movies she watched, such as Cinderella, Snow White, Bambi, Charlotte’s Web. 

Stage 2 mostly school age children have a strong belief fairness--in the justice and reciprocity of the universe.  Their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.  Literal interpretation of religious stories, God is like a parent figure.

Stage 3 arises in adolescence and is characterized by conformity and more abstract thinking.

Stage 4 --usually mid-20s to late 30s is a stage of angst and struggle.  The individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings, exploring their values.  For the first time, individuals are capable of full responsibility for their religious beliefs.

Stage 5 in midlife crisis acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating to reality behind the symbols of inherited belief systems and becoming more open to paradox and opposing viewpoints.

Stage 6 is universalizing faith or what some might call “enlightenment.”  Suspend belief systems for a sense of awe and oneness with the All.  Conflictual events are no longer viewed as paradox.

These stages are one way for us to look at Spiritual Growth.  I don’t believe they are necessarily consecutive or linear.  I think we’re always moving up or down these stages depending on what’s going on in our lives.  As a chaplain in the hospital, I visited patients expressing a  Stage 2 faith, understandably fearful they revert to thinking of God in terms of a punishing parent.  Asking why me, I must’ve done something really bad to deserve this, bargaining…

So how do we know if we are growing spiritually?  How do we measure spiritual growth?  From my google search it appears that the evangelical Christian churches are very interested in measuring spiritual growth.   They use terms such as selfless, sacrifice, service, submission and suffering.  IS it only me or do these feel a little punitive?  These concepts are old thinking and not helpful.  Will you consider with me, spiritual growth might be measured by how well or how often we give up expectations, are interested in making a difference in our world, taking into account the greater good of all, tolerate differences, let go of outcomes, turn lemons into lemonade. Overall a sign of spiritual maturity is being increasingly comfortable with uncertainty…with not knowing.  Remember when we were younger, like maybe around 31, and thought we knew everything! We didn’t even recognize that we didn’t know what we did not know.   

Can we all agree that we are each responsible for our own spiritual growth—no one else.  Spiritual growth is not something we can take for granted.  It takes intention and effort, discipline and practice. Here are a few suggestions.

These are some common spiritual practices that I believe if done regularly foster spiritual growth.

Gratitude.  This is number 1.  If you do nothing else--what’s that quote by Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.  Gratitude is fundamental spiritual practice. Counting our blessings puts the focus on what we do have and takes the focus off what we don’t have.   Simple yet amazing results.  Write down three to five things you’re grateful for every day!

Sing of love.  What would the world be like if we sang of love all day long.  Take a love song on the radio, imagine singing to the universe or the earth or imagine god singing to you. Try it for a day.  You’ll never go back to listening to love songs any other way.

Protection and Guidance:  If there is some, why not ask for it.  This is not something to leave to chance.  Be intentional.  Make it a habit, like every time you are buckling your seat belt in the car say something such as the unity prayer of protection: The light of god surrounds me, the love of god enfolds me, the power of god protects me, the presence of god watches over me. Guidance most often comes to us during a time of silence.  Spend time intentionally silent every day!

Forgiveness:  Forgiveness doesn’t happen without intention.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  It happens inch by inch.  It takes time.  We’re onions, we can peel off one layer and find there’s another layer waiting for us. What’s that thing Jesus said, 7 times 70.  Forgiveness is one of the 4 things dying people want according to Ira Byock.  Say I forgive you, please forgive me often.   Take a moment now to imagine a balloon coming toward you.  If you want to close your eyes and imagine a balloon coming toward you yet remaining at a safe distance, outside the room, the building, perhaps as far as a distant star, what ever feels like a safe distance for you.  It might have a color, a string attached to it, it might be a hot air balloon.  How ever you want to imagine it while it remains at a safe distance, think of someone you want to forgive and place them in the balloon.  See them in the balloon—maybe their face or their whole body.  Once you have them in your mind’s eye, let that balloon go, let it float away, into the distance until it’s out of sight while saying: I love you, I bless you, I forgive you, I forget you and I let you go.  Say it over and over until the balloon is out of sight.  Take a deep breath and when you are ready open your eyes. One sign of spiritual maturity is how uncomfortable we become with not seeking forgiveness as soon as possible.

Ask for what we need and want.  Date the top of a piece of paper and write them down.  This is how we know if we live in a responsive universe.  We can look back over what we have written during a year and see that our wants and needs have been met. This is an excellent practice for some of us who have a hard time knowing what we need and want.

Take time to read inspirational and spiritual materials Daily! This is why every bathroom should have a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul in it.

Journaling.  Writing with pen in hand.  At least 5 minutes a day.  There’s so many worthwhile techniques—writing with our non-dominant hand, Julia Cameron’s Artist Way morning pages.  I know it takes discipline, I almost brought each of you a partially written in journal that I’ve started but one thing I do know, my life goes so much better when I’m taking the time to write in a journal.  I have been a guest lecturer at CMU on the Power of Reflections.  If the definition of spirituality is meaning making, then taking time to reflect on the meaning of the experiences in our lives is vital to feeling satisfied and happy.

Rituals of release and letting go.  Writing it down and burning it.  Sending it down the river. Putting it in a balloon and watching it until it disappears.  When we notice we are too attached to the outcome, controlling what it is we want to have happen-- it is time to “surrender” --to give it up, give it over to that something which is greater than ourselves.  Breathe deeply and let it go, over and over, again and again. 

I hope you’ll experiment with these practices --make them your own and find out what works for you.  Let’s get back together again 6 months from now or a year  and see where we’re at with our spiritual growth.

Namaste! 

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